Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Nothing is what it seems. Grieving over the accidental death of their daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams), John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) leave their young son Johnny in an English boarding school and head to Venice where John’s been commissioned to restore a church. There Laura meets two ageing sisters (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania) who claim to be in touch with Christine’s spirit. Laura takes them seriously, but John scoffs until he himself catches a glimpse of what looks like Christine running through the streets of Venice. Unbeknownst to himself, he has precognitive abilities (which might even be figured in the book he’s written, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space) and the figure of local Bishop Barrigo (Massimo Serato) seems to be a harbinger of doom rather than a portent of hope.  Meanwhile, another body is fished out of the canal with a serial killer on the prowl …  Director Nicolas Roeg made one masterpiece after another in the early 1970s and this enjoyed a scandalous reputation because of the notorious sex scene between Christie and Sutherland which was edited along the lines of a film that Roeg had photographed for Richard Lester, Petulia, some years earlier. The clever cross-cutting with the post-coital scene of the couple dressing to go out for dinner persuaded people that they had watched something forbidden. That aside, the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant is a clever mix of horror, mystery, enigmatic serial killer thriller and a meditation on grief. All of that is meshed within a repetitive visual matrix of the colour red, broken glass and water. None of that would matter were it not for the intensely felt characterisation of a couple in mourning, with Christie’s satisfaction at her dead daughter’s supposed happiness opposed to Sutherland’s desire to shake off the image of the child’s shiny red mackintosh – the very thing that leads him to his terrible fate. Some of the editing is downright disturbing – particularly a cut to the old ladies busting a gut laughing whilst holding photographs, apparently of their own family members. John’s misunderstanding of his visions coupled with the literal crossed telephone line from England creates a cacophony of dread, with Pino Donaggio’s score and Anthony Richmond’s limpid shots of Venice in winter compounding the tender horror constructed as elegiac mosaic by editor Graeme Clifford. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Probably. I couldn’t possibly comment.  I never minded being lost in Venice.


Lady of Deceit (1947)

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Aka Born to Kill. Stop that phony intellectual patter you climbing faker! A cult item this, a film noir with a distinctly nasty undertow of viciousness and some droll lines. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is freshly divorced in Reno and finds the body of another woman and her boyfriend in her boarding house. Returning on the train to her wealthy foster sister’s home in San Francisco she’s accompanied by the ambitious thuggish drifter Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) who murdered the couple. Their attraction is obvious but he marries her sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long) and introduces his sidekick Marty (Elisha Cook Jr) to the mix. When philosophical private eye (Walter Slezak) turns up to investigate the Reno murders it transpires he was hired by the victim’s landlady Mrs Kraft (Esther Howard, always a joy) whose alcoholic inclinations won’t stop her from doing a Miss Marple. Helen inadvertently leads the older woman into a murderous situation engineered by Marty. Trevor’s byplay with Tierney is really something and the awfulness of everyone concerned is heightened in their verbal interactions. What this lacks in pace it makes up for in sheer psychopathy. A thoroughly febrile post-war film directed by former editor Robert Wise. It was adapted by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from the 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male, written by that fascinating screenwriter, novelist and producer James Gunn, who specialised in the hard-boiled pulps so familiar from the period.

The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!

Blue Murder at St Trinians (1957)

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A very deftly plotted entry in the Launder and Gilliat series adapted from Ronald Searle’s riotous school stories, this sees Amelia Fritton (Alastair Sim) in prison and with the school under military and police control, the girls contrive to win a bus trip to Europe and the father (Lionel Jeffries) of one of them returns in Ms Fritton’s place when he needs to hide out following a heist at Hatton Garden. With Terry-Thomas romancing Joyce Grenfell, George Cole doing his inimitable best as ‘Flash’ Harry running a marriage agency to get the sixth formers hitched, it’s all systems go for the anarchic crew. Bedlam, in  other words. Great fun.

Finishing School (1934)

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Any film with Billie Burke has me at Hello. But she leaves pretty quickly, after dropping off daughter Frances Dee at a v. posh boarding school in this pre-Code drama co-written and directed by Wanda Tuchock (adapting from a play). Ginger Rogers is Dee’s room-mate Pony, the It girl in the school or ‘The Pal’ as she is billed in the interesting titles sequence. She organises a weekend trip to the city where Dee fulfils her ambition to ‘get tight’ (!) and meets Bruce Cabot, a lower class med student bringing room service in the hotel where they stay. She has to stay at school over the Christmas vacation (neglectful folks going to Florida)  and they fall in love (look at that lovely shot with snowflakes falling into his shoeprints outside the boat house) a situation that causes consternation. In a world where Thou Shalt Not Get Caught is the edict, this promises more than it can deliver but is fascinating for its portrayal of class difference, underage smoking, drinking and sex, pregnancy (Dee is called Virginia for a reason), what  girls do when they wear mouth braces (I remember!), twisty ending, the fact that the Catholic Church condemned it (always a good sign) and as a relic of its time – plus Ginger giving her all. Some things never change however – trampy teenage girls come from all classes! Fun fact:  5 months after the film opened, Dee gave birth to actor Jody McCrea, her son by husband Joel McCrea. Their marriage survived until his death. She died aged 94. This was the year the Production Code introduced in 1930 came into force under Joseph Breen, hence the interest in a pre-Code film such as this, which aroused such ire amid the new push for purity in a sea of ambiguity.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

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Valentine’s Day demands homage at least in the western world. So why not do what 50% of the population wants women to do and watch some of them disappear?! This is what apparently happened in 1900 when some of the pupils of Appleyard Academy went on a day trip to a million-year old rock formation in Victoria. A lot of people thought this was a true story when the film came out but Joan Lindsay had written an entirely fictional novel (it happens). She herself did some acting, starting in her 60s. Here we are graced with Vivean Gray (the horrible aunt Mrs Jessup to the wonderful and sadly late John Walton in The Sullivans; Mrs Mangel in Neighbours), the beautiful Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda, Jacki(e) Weaver as Minnie and as Mlle. de Poitiers,  the fabulous Helen Morse, who was quite the star in Aussie cinema at the time. Remember Caddie? And of course, Agatha. We don’t see enough of her but maybe she was stuck in period roles to her detriment. Dominic Guard has a supporting role.  This is stunningly shot and is possessed of a rarely sustained tension. It terrified me when I saw this as a child, courtesy of BBC, when they used to have a mandate to show decent films. Great soundtrack and a fascination with landscape and the animal kingdom used to distinguish Peter Weir’s films. It is a very beautiful piece of work. Written by Cliff Green.